Practical Tips on Time Travel: How to Transport Using Gestures in VR.

Derrick Rose probably wishes that he could travel to a time where he doesn't play for the Knicks.

Derrick Rose probably wishes that he could travel to a time where he doesn't play for the Knicks.

Why do we need time travel, when we already travel through space so far and fast? For history. For mystery. For nostalgia. For hope. To examine our potential and explore our memories. To counter regret for the life we lived, the only life, one dimension, beginning to end.
— James Gleick, Time Travel

Time travel is a powerful tool for storytellers, but here I argue that all VR/AR designers can use associations with time travel to communicate help users grasp concepts more quickly.  

For VR/AR designers, time travel presents an interesting case study of:

  • Using physical gestures to represent abstract concepts
  • Activating known associations with each of those abstract concepts

Make Physical Gestures Represent Time in Space

Conceptually, human move through time. That means that how we think about space affects how we think about time.  As new technologies for tracking gestures improve, that means that VR/AR designers can build existing brain/body connections into their operating systems.

In today’s world of VR devices, imagine that you wanted to activate people’s senses of the future or the past using HTC Vive controllers.  

HTC Vive controller

HTC Vive controller

First start by thinking about what represents the future.  Generally, people believe that the future is in front of them and they will even lean forward when thinking about it.  The opposite is true for the past where people can be observed leaning backwards when reminiscing.  

In VR, it’s a 360-degree environment so it’s no exactly clear what’s the front and back of any experience so you should anchor associations of the future and past to the user’s body using hand gestures. Point your index finger forward to advance time and extend your thumb being you to reverse time.  Or, if the user has a set of controllers, have the forefinger buttons map to future movement and thumb buttons move you into the past.  Plus, give users the sense of moving forward or backward if you want them to feel transported to the future or the past. 

But does it matter if I’m not literally building a VR game about time travel?

Yes! These physical associations with the future and the past can be used by all VR/AR designers. By now, I hope that I’ve convinced you that people are wired to perceive the future in front and the past behind. Now you can use associations your target user has with the future or the past to map back to physical gestures.

The future generally associated with the following:

  • It offers more influence over external events.  Meaning that it is easier to control outcomes in the future compared to similar situations than the past
  • People tend to expect more positive things and fewer negative things will happen to them in the future. 
  • This leads them to anticipate all sorts of self-improvements (being healthier, skinnier, wiser, etc.) due to them exercising, dieting, reading, etc. more.

Now if people have such a large sense of optimism and expect so many positive things in the future, this also means that their rumination on the future is:

  • More imaginative than realistic (no reality checks)
  • Focused on the fulfillment of their greatest desires
  • Filled with more stereotypes and less variety

Now that you know about each of the associations with the future and you can imagine the converse association for the past.  There is much more negativity, uncontrollable outcomes, variety and details in the past.  

Using physical cues for the future [front] and the past [behind] can bring to mind the associations that Americans already have with the future and the past.  Using physical gestures to represent concepts as abstract as the future, but could also bring to mind things associated with the future such as a greater sense of self-control.  

Here’s an example of how to use the gestures and associations with the future in an indirect way.  Let’s say that you wanted to give people a heightened sense of autonomy and control inside of your experience.  Prime them to act with more autonomy by having them lean into your experience.

Another instance where you could utilize these associations would be around storytelling.  If you wanted people to consume a narrative that you have created, let them sink back to watch it.  Indicate that the events have already occurred and that they cannot change.  


  • People come into any experience with pre-existing associations and it’s up to the designers to utilizing existing ones or train new ones.  
  • Abstract concepts such as the future or the past can have physical associations (leaning forwarding, etc).
  • It is possible to use physical gestures to represent abstract concepts.  Pointing with the index finger, or using the trigger button on a controller can map onto the future.  
  • Start by thinking about the feelings and associations that you want your users to have.  What the the associations and references that people have with those things and work backward from there.  


Kane, J., McGraw, A. P., & Van Boven, L. (2008). Temporally asymmetric constraints on mental simulation: Retrospection is more constrained than prospection. The handbook of imagination and mental simulation, 131-149.